In an effort to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community, a Town Hall Meeting entitled Rebuilding Faith in Our Community was held on August 4th in Sunrise. Hosted by The Faith Center’s Bishop Henry Fernandez, the event featured a panel discussion with Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, area police chiefs, politicians, pastors and community leaders. With questions from the audience welcomed throughout, it was a candid discussion about police brutality, the senseless killings of law enforcement officers, and how people can work together to make the community a safe place.
“We’re all aware of the difficulties that exist between law enforcement and the community,” said Craig Steven, or Channel 7 WSVN News, who emceed the event. “That’s the point of this evening – a talk, a chat the first step. The idea is to walk in somebody else’s shoes for a while and perhaps come away with a little more understanding.”
A matter of trust
Respondents characterized the state of relations between the community and the police as a matter of lack of trust.
Acknowledging she understands there are good police officers and bad officers, Broward NAACP President Marsha Ellison said, “Mothers are afraid. We don’t know what police officer will show up. It seems like the bad cops are winning and not enough is being done.”
When asked how the church can respond, Pastor Doug Sauder, of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, said, “We can address the spiritual issues and recognize that every person is made in His Image. That is the one common denominator. We can’t get around it. We should be thinking how do I show the respect of God to that person? Our kids are watching, and they see if we look that person in the eyes and show them love and respect.”
But before the church can make an impact, Fernandez said, “The clergy in Broward County must first unite. Pastors and ministers of all faiths must come to the table and be a light to come together for this common cause.”
Sheriff Scott Israel pointed out that the Bible also tells us to respect those in authority. He referred to a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King in which he said, “‘Faith is taking the first step and not worrying where the staircase is.’ We need to have faith in each other.”He urged, “Don’t judge law enforcement by the misconduct of a few. It’s our job not to judge the community by the misdeeds of a few.”
Sunrise Police Chief John Brooks said he tells new hires that “if you treat people as you would your family, with respect and dignity, you will never have a problem in this department.”
And when the audience expressed concern over the screening process for hiring officers, Israel said he hopes to place civilians on their hiring committee, so they have a say in who is hired to police their communities. The Broward Sheriff’s Office has also purchased 50 body cameras for officers who are on the street.
Questions for authorities
While the community was told, “If you see something say something,” many in the audience had a lot of questions for authorities. For example, “If a police officer stops you for a simple road violation, do they have the right to search you and your car?”
State Attorney Michael Katz, said, They have to have probable cause; however, he emphasized it is very easy to establish that.
Attorney George Odom, Jr,. agreed. “In a hearing 99 percent of the time, the judge will find probable cause… You can’t argue about [it] in the middle of the night on Sistrunk Boulevard. He can prove to a judge he does.”
Odom said, “the biggest thing we need to do is see law enforcement go above and beyond and not put so much on these young men in the streets. They have to understand that a 16-year-old is not going to react the way I’m going to react. He may be cussing him out, but don’t be so quick to say how he should have acted.”
Fernandez shared an experience he had with an officer during a routine traffic stop in which the officer pulled him over for speeding with his two sons in the back seat of the car.
“The first things the officer said was, ‘Boy! Give me your license and registration,’” explained Fernandez, who said he respectfully complied. “The officer wrote me a ticket and threw it in my face, he said, adding, “Police officers should just respect citizens – even when we’re wrong.”
Chief Brooks acknowledged that there are some bad cops. “But don’t try to fight it on the street; make a complaint,” he urged, as the crowd grumbled in response.
“The situation the Bishop described shouldn’t have happened to anyone, anytime, anywhere,” Katz replied.
But Ellison said, “The Bishop’s experience is my life. The process simply isn’t working for citizens. Unless you have video, you don’t have a chance to have your voice heard.”
Justin Green, a 16-year-old boy in the audience, asked, “If we don’t like the way a police officer is treating us, can we dial 9-1-1?”
While a few chuckled, Odom explained, “You can file a complaint against the officer later, but at that moment, the police don’t want all that extra movement. The best thing you can do is comply, comply and comply.”
Several initiatives were presented by lawmakers during the panel discussion that would create more accountability and foster understanding. However, as far as the Church is concerend, Sauder said, “It’s our role to say, how can I make a difference? I encouraged people at our church to find someone who looks different from you and invite them for dinner…knock on the door of a neighbor and talk.” Sauder said that he and Fernandez recently began having conversations over lunch to get to know each other and learn.
Bishop Marcus Davidson, of New Mount Olive Baptist Church, acknowledged, “What he’s saying is right but the truth of the matter is there has to be real, authentic discussion, and an officer that lives in Plantation but works in the 33311 zip code doesn’t understand. We’re going to have to strip off our political or clergy clothes and walk in the street… They need to know, he has gold in his teeth and pants sagging but that’s not a bad guy; that’s just his culture. …If I take this suit off and take a ride in my car, they don’t know I’m a pastor…you don’t know what it’s like to be a black man unless you walk in my shoes.”
The discussion concluded with an understanding that we’re not going to heal without the faith based community.
“More than anything else our community must put God in the Equation,” said Fernandez. Recognizing that it will take a sustained effort, Fernandez said, “I challenge the faith community to partner in this effort and play a role in directing the heart of people back to God. Crime has to do with the heart. If you change the heart of a man, then you will change his behavior. …Finally let’s pray for healing so we can can prosper in this wonderful country. …Start loving each other and I promise the healing will begin.”